Washington, DC – Two decades ago, on May 1, 2003, then-US President George W Bush declared “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” in a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, with a banner behind him proclaiming “mission accomplished”.
The theatrical event, coming just 43 days after the United States had launched a ground invasion of Iraq, was meant to declare the beginning of the end of one of the main prongs of Washington’s so-dubbed post-September 11, 2001 “global war on terror” (GWOT).
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But far from ending operations, the US would send more troops to Iraq – peaking at about 168,000 forces in 2007, with no evidence the country had been involved in 2001’s 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC.
The US would also further expand its GWOT, carrying out what analysts say was an undeterminable amount of strikes and military operations – sometimes through partner forces – against those deemed threats to the US in more than 20 countries across the world.
And while the rhetoric and strategy of the “war on terror” has shifted across presidential administrations, including that of current President Joe Biden, it continues to be defined by a “lack of democratic accountability”, according to Katherine Yon Ebright, counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program.
That lack of accountability has persisted as US involvement has seen a “metastasis” over two decades, most notably spreading into an array of countries across Africa and Asia, she said. That sprawl has occurred as the US has shifted away from large-scale intervention.
“These are places where we hadn’t really had the conversation ‘Does it make sense for us to be pursuing these supposed adversaries? Are these even our adversaries or are they local groups with local interests?'” Ebright said. “There has not been that sort of democratic sanction.”
Who is the US still fighting?
Under the US Constitution, Congress has the sole right to declare war, something it has not done since World War II.
Instead, leaders have relied on a tangle of legal authorities to justify – at least in terms of domestic law – military adventurism related to the stated goal of snuffing out “terror” threats to the US.
While these legal justifications remain fluid, they generally support the broadened power for the executive branch – the White House, Department of Defense, and Central Intelligence Agency – to use or support force against groups deemed US enemies, according to analysts.
The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) of 2001 has remained a giant in this constellation of legal authorities and interpretations that continue to underpin US operations to counter “terror” that escape further congressional approval.
Enacted on September 18, 2001, it allows the US president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorised, committed, or aided” the September 11, 2001 attacks, as well as nations that harboured those entities.
Used as the justification for the US invasion of Afghanistan, the 2001 AUMF has been widely interpreted to include groups associated with al-Qaeda, and controversially, ISIL (ISIS), and various offshoots. A subsequent AUMF, passed in 2002, created the legal justification for the US invasion of Iraq, and was later deemed applicable to Syria.
According to a 2021 report by Stephanie Savell, the co-director of the Costs of War project at Brown University, since 2001, the AUMF has been used to justify US air strikes and operations in Djibouti, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, among others, as well as “support” for partners in a wide range of countries, including Cameroon, Chad, Eritrea, Georgia, Kosovo, Jordan, Nigeria and the Philippines.
All told, presidential administrations have publicly cited the 2001 AUMF in “an unknown number of military operations, including airstrikes, combat, detention, and supporting partner militaries” in 22 countries since 2001, the report said.
But that is far from the whole picture of US involvement, Savell told Al Jazeera. Her analysis from 2018 to 2020 found that Washington undertook what it labelled as “counterterrorism” activities in 85 countries during those two years – ranging from “training or assisting” a country’s military expressly for counterterrorism, to actual US-conducted strikes.
She added that an ongoing analysis of Biden’s first years in office “looks very similar”.
“When I began this project [in 2015], I thought this was going to be straightforward: I’m going to make a map of the war on terror, and it’s going to have about seven or eight countries,” she told Al Jazeera. “But the more I dug, the more that I discovered the vast extent of what’s happening. This is not published or talked about on any government website, or in any kind of official, comprehensive way, to the point that even Congress doesn’t know the full story.”
From 2018 to 2020, the US conducted air and drone strikes in seven countries: Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the report showed.
During that period, the analysis found, the US was also involved in combat or potential combat in 12 countries related to counterterrorism, while running highly secretive 127e programmes – which allow the US military to use local troops as surrogates in raids and other attacks on militants – in at least eight of those countries: Mali, Tunisia, Cameroon, Kenya, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, and Mauritania.
Meanwhile, the US was also involved in 79 countries either through the military, state department or other agencies training and assisting that country’s security forces expressly in “counterterrorism”, according to the report.
“The footprint of the ‘war on terror’, which began with the invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, continues,” Savell told Al Jazeera. “It isn’t over just because the Pentagon has shifted its focus to ‘great power competition’,” she said, referring to the commonly used term for countering the spheres of influence of powerful countries like Russia and China.
For its part, the Biden administration has signalled a pivot towards more restraint, signing a classified policy last year to create higher approval standards for drone strikes outside of Iraq and Syria, which it deemed to be the only two remaining “areas of active hostilities” in which the US was involved, the New York Times reported in October of last year.
That order, in conjunction with a new – and also classified – counterterrorism strategy memo, indicated the US “intends to launch fewer drone strikes and commando raids away from recognised war zones than it has in the recent past”, the newspaper reported, citing an official who spoke on background.
Observers have noted that both the number of drone strikes and reported civilian casualties appear to have been largely curtailed in Biden’s first years. That has included a continued pause on strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.
But Brian Finucane, a senior adviser with Crisis Group, said that the Biden administration has continued the tradition of “spotty” reporting on those operations. The administration, he said, has taken “somewhat of a step back” from the push for greater transparency under former President Barack Obama – a push that was itself rolled back under Obama’s successor Donald Trump.
The lack of clarity has included not publicly releasing the groups the Biden administration currently targets under the 2001 AUMF, Finucane said.
“At the bare minimum, the US public should know who the country is at war with or at least who the executive branch thinks the country is at war with,” he told Al Jazeera. “Secret enemies are no way to wage foreign policy or conduct matters of war and peace.”
‘By, with, through’ foreign partners
The most recent White House report required by the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which sought to shore up oversight of executive branch use of force, said the Biden administration has used force only in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia in 2021 and 2022, the Brennan Center’s Ebright noted in a recent article.
The report, she said, omitted “any combat that occurred by, with, through, or on behalf of foreign partners elsewhere”, including an instance where US forces reportedly came under attack during an operation in Mali in 2022.
That underscores a particular issue related to the bilateral security cooperation programmes the US maintains with individual countries – like the 79 identified by the Costs of War project from 2018 to 2020.
Those programmes have expanded in the wake of September 11, but the executive branch has regularly taken the position that they do not qualify under current reporting requirements, according to Ebright, who published a report on the matter last year.
“While training and support may sound benign, these authorities have been used beyond their intended purpose,” the report said. “In short, these programs have enabled or been used as a springboard for hostilities.”
Calls for reform
A Congressional push for more oversight on security cooperation agreements followed the 2017 deaths of four US Green Berets in Niger. Several US senators said at the time that they did not know US troops were active in that country. Still, Ebright said the Defense Department’s authorities still require “substantial modification, if not outright repeal”. Changes could include requiring prior committee approval to enter into the programmes and legislating greater access to related information for both Congress and the public.
Meanwhile, wider reform is needed to rein in the powers of the executive branch, several analysts told Al Jazeera. A start would be reform of the 2001 AUMF, although congressional efforts on that front have remained limited.
A US Senate vote last month to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF has been viewed as a small step towards that larger goal.
“This needs to kick-start a process of reining in the executive branch, reclaiming Congress’s constitutional prerogative for declaring war and regulating the military,” Ebright told Al Jazeera. “It’s important to our democracy. This needs to be an accountable process.”